Centuries before the Islamic Republic or even Islam, Persian athletes fused spirituality and strength training in a practice called Varzesh-e-Bastani, the legacy of which may still persist.
Iran's Behdad Salimikordasiabi lifts 500-plus pounds over his head, winning an Olympic gold medal and a world record. (AP)
Freestyle wrestling is often described as the "first sport" of the Islamic Republic of Iran, according to U.S.-based Iranian historian Houchang Chehabi. Iran excels at international wrestling competitions, winning three gold medals at this year's Olympics alone, and an astounding 35 medals since 1948. But the story of how Iran came to so dominate wrestling is older than the Islamic Republic, possibly older than even Islam itself, and may have to do with an Iranian understanding of the sport far different than the West's.
That story may also have to do with Iran's record at weightlifting and, to a lesser extent, tae kwon do. Iranian weighlifters won the men's super-heavyweight gold and silver this year, the former to the amazing Behdad Salimikordasiabi for lifting 545 pounds, more than a baby grand piano, over his head. He broke his own world record, which he'd set the year before in Paris, when he broke the previous record, also held by an Iranian. Though Iranians don't win as many Olympic medals in tae kwon do, both men and women are perennial winners at other international and Asian leagues. Iran's record in these three sports is even more striking compared to its abysmal Olympic record in everything else; in Olympics history, the country has only one medal from any other sport: a silver in discus throwing, won this Tuesday.
The surprisingly rich academic literature on Iran's impressive records at wrestling, weightlifting, and tae kwon do consistentlyconnects all three to an ancient Persian sport called Varzesh-e-Bastani, which literally translates to "ancient sport." To Westerners, Varzesh-e-Bastani might look like an odd combination of wrestling, strength training, and meditation. Though there's no known link between Varesh-e-Bastani and yoga, it might help to think of it as something like a Persian version of this athletic practice that's also a method of personal and community development -- and a symbol of cultural heritage.
Though Western cultures typically treat wrestling as an aggressive, individualistic, and deeply competitive sport, traditional Persian Varzesh-e-Bastani emphasizes it as a means of promoting inner strength through outer strength in a process meant to cultivate what we might call chivalry. The ideal practitioner is meant to embody such moral traits as kindness and humility and to defend the community against sinfulness and external threats. The connection of weightlifting with character development might sound odd, but it's perhaps not so different from, for example, the yogic practice of Shavanasa, a meditative pose meant to bolster the spiritual and mental role of yoga's stretches and poses.
Varzesh-e-Bastani is traditionally practiced in a building called a Zoorkhaneh, which means "home of strength" and is often built and decorated in an ancient style that's led archaeologists to trace them to the Mithraic era of the first through fourth centuries, AD. The Mithraic religion, named for the Persian god Mithra, spread through much of the Roman Empire before being displaced by Christianity -- and, much later, displaced by Islam in Persia itself. But some Mithraic ideas and practices persisted in the Zoorkhaneh, and can maybe still be heard in the pre-exercise chanting or seen in the ritual movements.
History is political in Iran, and has been for centuries. Its leaders have alternatively embraced or downplayed the country's ancient, pre-Islamic roots. After the Arab Muslim invasion, Persian elites resisted the new religion for centuries, seeing it as the Arabs' religion. In the 1500s, though followers of Islam's two major schools of Shi'ism and Sunnism had long been dispersed across the Middle East, Persia's imperial Safavid rulers played up Iran's Shi'a heritage as a way to unifying Arab Shi'a against the increasingly Sunni Ottoman Empire. The following migrations of Shi'a to Iran and present-day Iraq helped create a geographic division that largely holds to this day. The shahs of the Pahlavi dynasty, which took over in 1925, tried to bring Iran into the developed world in part by emphasizing its ancient Persian roots as an alternative to the Islamic identity that, as he saw it, tied it to the less developed nations of the Middle East and Central Asia. The Islamist revolutionaries of 1979 veered back in the other direction. In 2009, moderate presidential candidate (and, shortly after that, informal "green movement" leader) Mir Hossein Mousavi peppered his campaign posters with images of pre-Islamic cultural sites, a subtle nod to the days before the Islamic Republic.
Through these turbulent back-and-forths, leaders and popular movements alike have pushed away one aspect of Persian cultural heritage in order to lift up another, re-re-inventing their society so many times over that few institutions have survived intact. Even the Supreme Leader's Islam does not always look so much like the Shi'ism of earlier generations.
Yet, somehow, the Varzesh-e-Bastani traditions and the Zoorkhaneh have survived, embraced during both the shah's secular Westernizing era and under the Islamic Republic as a symbol of Persian national pride and of cultural roots. Both regimes, though they couldn't be more different, promoted the Zoorkhaneh and entrenched its practices into national physical education, even reminding Iranians that the sport's champions had once defended their communities against the Mongol invaders of a thousand years earlier. The Islamic Republic lionized the Varzesh-e-Bastani wrestler Gholamreza Takhti, elevating him to what one historian calls "the greatest Iranian sports legend of the twentieth century," perhaps in part because he could appeal to both Islamists and more secular skeptics, a unifying figure in a country that badly needed one.
Iranian nationalism and national pride -- of a kind that seems possibly even broader than that of the supreme leader's Islamist nationalism -- has become tightly wound with international wrestling and weightlifting competitions, the two sports most closely associated with Varzesh-e-Bastani. In 1989, just after the end of the devastating eight-year war against Iraq, Iranian heavyweight wrestler Ali-Reza Soleimani defeated an American wrestler for the world wrestling championship that year, exciting Iranians who badly needed something to feel good about, and striking a symbolic (for them) blow against the U.S., which had aided the Iraqis in the war. State funding for wrestling immediately increased, and the Islamic Republic played up its ancient Persian roots to try and cash in on the popularity.
In the late 1990s, reformists who followed new President Mohammad Khatami into power hinted that wrestling could be a path to detente with the U.S., a sort of Persian take on China's Nixon-era ping pong diplomacy. It never happened, but wrestling and weightlifting have remained so popular in Iran, and so closely linked to national pride, that Iranian research universities still produce studies on, for example, the effects of Ramadan fasting on weightlifting performance or the personality traits of weightlifters and martial artists versus players of team sports. Though the nation's Greco-Roman wrestling team performed the best of any country in this year's Olympics, Iranian social media users are apparently fuming over one wrestler's loss to a French opponent, insisting that Olympic referees had conspired against him (no, there's no evidence).
It's difficult, and maybe ultimately impossible, to say for sure why one country might do particularly well (or particularly poorly) in one athletic competition or another. And it's especially difficult to test the theory that Iranians are so good as weightlifting and wrestling (and, to a lesser extent, tae kwon do) because of those sports' roots in the pre-Islamic Varzesh-e-Bastani tradition, one of the few ancient cultural legacies that has been allowed to persist through the past century of near-endless political turmoil. After all, gold medals in these events are won by a tiny handful of individuals. Still, if even just these dozen or so Iranian athletes believed that their amazing skill was rooted in this particularly Persian heritage, then wouldn't that in itself make it at least somewhat true?
The country has seen periods of turmoil before. But this time may be different.
I am usually an optimist when it comes to Turkey’s future. Indeed, I wrote a whole book about The Rise of Turkey. But these days, I’m worried. The country faces a toxic combination of political polarization, government instability, economic slowdown, and threats of violence—from both inside and outside Turkey—that could soon add up to a catastrophe. The likelihood of that outcomeis increasing amid Russia’s bombing raids in Syria in support of its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which threaten to debilitate the moderate rebels and boost the extremists in Syria’s civil war, while leaving Turkey to deal with two unruly neighbors: Assad and ISIS.
Of course, Turkey has gone through periods of political and economic crisis before. During the 1970s, the country’s economy collapsed, and the instability led to fighting among right- and left-wing militant groups and security forces that killed thousands of people. Then, in the 1990s, Turkey was pummeled by triple-digit inflation and a full-blown Kurdish insurgency that killed tens of thousands. Turkey survived both those decades. The historian in me says that Turkey will be able to withstand the coming shock this time as well.
What went wrong with the conversion ministry, according to Alan Chambers, who once led its largest organization
In 2001, Alan Chambers was hired as the president of the world’s largest ex-gay ministry, Exodus International. That same year, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher issued a report that stated, “there is no valid evidence showing that sexual orientation can be changed.”
Like most conservative Christian leaders at the time, Chambers considered the countercultural nature of his work a point of pride. During the latter part of the 20th century, Exodus and similar conservative groups promoted the idea that gay people could—and should try to—become straight. Ex-gay leaders traveled to churches and appeared on television news programs citing a litany of examples of happily married “former homosexuals” to demonstrate that sexual orientation is a choice and that change is possible.
Forget the Common Core, Finland’s youngsters are in charge of determining what happens in the classroom.
“The changes to kindergarten make me sick,” a veteran teacher in Arkansas recently admitted to me. “Think about what you did in first grade—that’s what my 5-year-old babies are expected to do.”
The difference between first grade and kindergarten may not seem like much, but what I remember about my first-grade experience in the mid-90s doesn’t match the kindergarten she described in her email: three and a half hours of daily literacy instruction, an hour and a half of daily math instruction, 20 minutes of daily “physical activity time” (officially banned from being called “recess”) and two 56-question standardized tests in literacy and math—on the fourth week of school.
That American friend—who teaches 20 students without an aide—has fought to integrate 30 minutes of “station time” into the literacy block, which includes “blocks, science, magnetic letters, play dough with letter stamps to practice words, books, and storytelling.” But the most controversial area of her classroom isn’t the blocks nor the stamps: Rather, it’s the “house station with dolls and toy food”—items her district tried to remove last year. The implication was clear: There’s no time for play in kindergarten anymore.
The Red Planet once had an ocean and a magnetic field. A new mission is setting out to discover what happened to them.
The question of whether there is life on Mars is woven into a much larger thatch of mysteries. Among them: What happened to the ancient ocean that once covered a quarter of the planet’s surface? And, relatedly, what made Mars’s magnetosphere fade away? Why did a planet that may have looked something like Earth turn into a dry red husk?
“We see magnetized rocks on the Mars surface,” said Bruce Banerdt, the principal investigator of the InSight mission to Mars, which is set to launch in March. “And so we know Mars had a magnetic field at one time, but it doesn't today. We would like to know the history—when that magnetic field started, when it may have shut down.”
There are a few leading theories about what decimated the planet’s magnetism. One of them is that huge asteroids bombarded Mars until its magnetic field turned off. That storm of asteroids may have included one enormous rock in particular, even bigger than the one believed to have wiped out Earth’s dinosaurs. Another theory explores the possibility that Mars’s ancient magnetic field only ever covered one of its hemispheres, an idea that would also explain how the planet’s magnetism weakened over time. “The presence of a magnetic field is key to understanding the history of Mars’s atmosphere, which of course is key to habitability on Mars’s surface,” Banerdt told me.
Many high-school graduates must choose between two bad options: a four-year program for which they’re not academically or emotionally prepared, or job-specific training that might put a ceiling on their careers.
Two years ago, my nephew was set to graduate from Maryland’s Towson University with a degree in political science. After six long years, both he and his parents were ready to breathe a sigh of relief—he had made it to the finish line. He had never been excited about school, and his parents had worried about his lack of enthusiasm, wishing he could be engaged in something that ignited his curiosity and provided him more of a motivation to focus, something more hands-on and practical. But they also knew that without a bachelor’s degree, my nephew’s ability to move into a rewarding career, earn a middle-class salary, and enjoy some economic security would be very limited. And they worried that if he didn’t complete that degree before he turned 25, he likely never would (a reasonable concern, given national statistics on college completion). Determined to launch him into adulthood with the strongest possible foundation they could, they persuaded him to go to college and crossed their fingers.
“Vaccine hesitancy” is a delicate way of phrasing a serious public-health problem. The World Health Organization defines it as “delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccines despite availability of vaccination services.”
There’s a tendency to treat these vaccine-hesitant people as a monolith, the “anti-vaxers” who are putting everyone at risk. But people who don’t vaccinate aren’t just a homogenous mob of parents who fear toxins and want their kids to be exposed to chicken pox “the natural way.” There are a variety of reasons why people decide not to vaccinate, and a new paper by researchers at Rutgers University and Germany’s University of Erfurt and RWTH Aachen University, published in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, breaks down the psychology of four different types of non-vaccinators, in the hopes of finding effective strategies to change their minds.
Humans have a tendency to cluster based on shared interests, but the changing demographics of cities and towns present the possibility to forge new levels of connection.
In the 1980s, when I was living in Durham, North Carolina, I attended a church in a neighborhood undergoing transition. St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church had been built to serve Hope Valley, an upper-class neighborhood, an early 20th-century enclave strategically positioned on the other side of the Durham County line, allowing residents to avoid racial tensions in town. By the late 1980s, however, change was afoot in Durham County. Huge planned developments sprang up, complete with schools, private pools, and associations. The new communities bore old-fashioned words like “chapel,” “farm,” or “woods” in their names, to give them an air of tradition. The old Hope Valley neighbors, who could be an exclusive lot, had a hard time with these pop-up communities, seeing the new people as interlopers and the new developments as intrusions on the landscape. At the church, a tribal war broke out between those who sought to maintain the old neighborhood and the newcomers who had begun to attend the church. In the short term, the old-timers won. It was, in a word, unpleasant.
National Geographic Magazine has opened its annual photo contest, with the deadline for submissions coming up on November 16, 2015.
National Geographic Magazine has opened its annual photo contest, with the deadline for submissions coming up on November 16, 2015. The Grand Prize Winner will receive $10,000 and a trip to National Geographic headquarters to participate in its annual photography seminar. The kind folks at National Geographic were once again kind enough to let me choose among the contest entries so far for display here. Captions written by the individual photographers.
Why Illinois had different drinking ages for different genders
Until quite recently, drinking in America has been strongly associated with maleness. According to one study, as late as 1990 only 80 percent of Americans thought it was acceptable for a woman to be drinking at a bar with friends, compared with 85 percent who thought it was fine for a man to do so.
We can thank many things for the change in social norms: The increase in college attendance among women, feminism, and of course, Sex and the City and its river of cosmopolitans.
But some places were ahead of their time. I recently came across this map, which shows that until 1961 in Illinois, the drinking age was lower for women than it was for men. It was the only state where women could knock one back at 18, but men had to wait until 21.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.